Can any bird learn to step up onto a hand or a stick? I believe that she can. And until your bird has a reliable step up, it is much harder for bird and carer to live harmoniously.
Too many birds are condemned to stay in cages because once out they won’t step up to be returned.
Two mistakes are often made when we ask for a step up. Luckily they are both easy to spot and to understand their poor effects - why they don’t work. But better still they are not hard to eliminate.
The first one is approaching too close to a bird, especially if she does not know you. If you try and think like a bird, we are large and frightening objects.
We have predator eyes set in front of our faces like wolves and cats and owls. Our movements are often too abrupt.
What can it look like for a bird to have large glittering eyes forced a few centimetres from its face? So the solution is - when approaching any bird especially an unknown one, move quietly and keep a distance - at arm’s length isn’t a bad start.
If approaching them too close doesn’t suit birds, the other mistake is positioning the hand or stick in the wrong spot for a bird to glide easily upon your hand. I have seen people stick their hand below the perch and demand ‘step up.’
Holding a hand or a stick in a position lower than the bird’s feet is a basic misunderstanding of bird physiology. Mammal’s weight is fairly evenly distributed throughout the body but birds are top heavy. Watch a bird at liberty, how it uses its feet far more confidently going upwards than downwards.
A bird steps up easily but steps down with difficulty. Even when asked to step up by someone holding their hand in the position which is uncomfortable for the bird, a bird may often try to comply but must use their beak to balance on the hand which is being held lower than their feet.
The person jerks the hand away and claims the bird was trying to bite. This can happen with a young bird who then gets labelled uncooperative.
So how can you teach a reliable step up to a bird who shuffles away, flies off or worse of all leans over and bites?
The handler is misunderstanding the term ‘step up’. A bird steps up far more easily than it steps down.
When you ask a bird to step up, make sure that you position your hand or a stick if you using one held in such a position that the bird can step up.
As soon as the first foot touches the hand or stick you use your clicker or your bridge word ‘good’ or ‘well done’ or whatever phrase you use. As soon as the second foot touches base you give the reward.
Whether you offer a reward each time the step up is performed is up to personal taste. With my Benni (a one year old Blue and Gold Macaw) steps up he is generally free flying out of doors and he gets a reward each time.
And as he is not hungry when he flies, the reward for a step up is often the use of a toy.
This morning to get Benni to step up to be carried into the aviary, the toy he coveted was an old jam jar lid with a hole in the middle.
The right position for your hand is directly in front of the bird and higher than the level of the perch. How much higher is a matter of fine discrimination.
Obviously the longer the bird’s legs, the larger its claws - the wider the distance will be. Never needs to be more than a few centimetres
Birds are top heavy, for them, stepping downward is awkward and less secure-feeling. I have watched the following scenario with a friend’s orange winged Amazon.
My friend Sue (not her real name) asked Petey to step up.
She held her hand below the level of the T-stand and Petey lunged at it. She tried again but still kept her hand too low. She felt nervous of a bite and did not keep her hand still. Petey shuffled away to the end of the perch.
He is clipped so could not fly off.
Sue, who is a quick learner, realised her mistake and retrained the step up.
She began by asking Petey for a step up with his cage door open. She planned a training session of only a few minutes before Petey’s 8 a.m. breakfast. She showed him the pine nut in her left hand.
Within a week, Petey was stepping up onto her right hand for a pine nut. She was then able to take him out of the cage. She asked him for a step down onto his perch for another pine nut.
For enough pine nuts, Petey would probably learn to speak Greek. Once she realised how important the hand position was, she held her hand below the perch so Petey had to step up to get off her hand.
The physiology of birds is such that they prefer to reach up to the next branch (or hand) and raise their weight up and on to the leading foot. The motion is flowing. You must have noticed birds are graceful creatures.
If the perch is the right size, the bird closes his foot around the perch and balances. Greater security and balance will cause less grabbing as the bird comes onto your hand.
When you take him back to another perch or back to his cage make sure that you offer him the step down in such a way that he is actually stepping up. A better term for step down would be step off.
Sue and her Amazon Petey didn’t have major problems. I hope she will let his wings grow out so that he has more choice and variety in his life with her.
But what can you do when a bird is so reluctant to step up that you must resort to lights out and chasing with a towel in the dark?
One solution that is believed to have a 100% success rate (if you persevere) is target training.
Teach a bird to touch a target stick and then use that stick to get the bird to move around.
You can buy specially made target sticks or use a wooden dowel or a chopstick. Get used to holding the target in your left hand so you have the right hand for treats etc.
You show the target to the bird who normally will grab with their beak. Click or use bridge word and reward immediately. Getting hold of the target stick and chewing it up as if it is a toy is not what your aim is.
It may take a few sessions until the bird is reaching out to grab the stick, but even the most timid bird will usually get this in only a matter of days.
Self-confident Benni touched the target stick straightaway. Nervous Dave, a rescued Amazon, took ten days. Same handler same procedure – different bird.
A few of my birds are wild caught or rescues who have had traumatic events in their lives and for them, I do not know why, somehow target training appears less stressful than asking for the step up straight away.
Once a bird is moving freely to the target I simply lay the target stick alongside my hand. The bird touches that for the reward. It does not take long then for the stick to be on my hand and the bird performing a step up that way.